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Column: 00Technology and nature

“There’s a woman I long to touch, and I’m missing her so much, but she’s drifting like a satellite,” – Bob Dylan

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MARQUETTE — I stepped outside the back door to find the treetops glazed in ice, clinking like windchimes as the breezes moved the branches back and forth.

Rain that had fallen over the past couple of hours had frozen on the patio bricks too, making my way slick as I moved out from under the edge of the roofline.

Very early that morning, while it was still quite dark, I had come out here to breath the fresh, cold air.

From a few feet away, I heard footsteps approaching through the blackness, pushing into a crust of glazed ice that covered the soft, wet snow beneath.

I presumed it was deer. I couldn’t see them, and I don’t think they could see me, but the floppy cadence of their steps and their position I judged to be not far from the apple trees, and at the edge of the woods, helped me draw that conclusion.

I didn’t speak a word. I didn’t make a sound. I think we could feel each other though. I know I could feel them. I kept hoping my eyesight would adjust enough to see these animals through the darkness, but it didn’t happen.

A couple of minutes later, the back-door latch clicked as I opened the door to quietly go inside. I switched on the backyard lights, but the deer, skulking in the shadows, remained invisible to me.

It was dark outside again now as I stood here in the chilled, damp wind listening to the tree branch wind chimes. A raindrop slid down my nose.

I had come outside this time to get a look at the evening sky. Unfortunately, thick clouds would prevent me from seeing much of anything else.

Over the past week or so, strange lights – set out in a row – have been visible in the dark night skies from Montana to Michigan.

A similar phenomenon was reported last May from Europe.

Each instance brought a flap of reports of unidentified flying objects. In fact, the lights were SpaceX Starlink satellites launched in hopes of aiding broadband communications, especially in areas with only limited service.

News outlets reported that the trains of satellites would eventually breakup out of their linear presentation, settling into individual, unique orbits.

SpaceX launched 60 satellites late in 2019; another 60 last May and another 60 are expected to be shot into space early this year.

I read that the SpaceX project may have 12,000 or more satellites in the sky by 2025.

Shocking!

Right now, there is a total of about 3,000 satellites orbiting the earth, along with another 5,000 manmade objects.

I had checked projected passes of the latest SpaceX satellite train over my house, with the help of a website, hoping to see the sight for myself.

Not tonight, not with these clouds and rain.

Meanwhile, the Russians have announced a milestone they equated with the technological breakthrough of the launch of Sputnik in 1957.

They said new hypersonic vehicle, which is designed to be attached to an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S., is ready for war.

The weapon is said to be able to travel at least five times the speed of sound and can maneuver swiftly in evasive action.

The SR-71 Blackbird spy-plane the U.S. built during the 1960s could fly faster than a bullet, at three times the speed of sound. The new Russian Avengard hypersonic glide vehicle is said to be able to fly about 1 mile per second.

News reports said the Russians have been developing the weapon over the past three decades. Once launched, the vehicle uses aerodynamic forces to ride on the top of the atmosphere.

The U.S. government said it will be a couple of years before it has similar weaponry. One proposed defense is producing space weapons to destroy the hypersonic Russian craft, ala the so-called “Star Wars” missile defense system.

And with that we disappear down the rabbit hole into a new year.

I wonder where we will pop up this time next year. It seems to me we as a world are taking these steps leaving the potential consequences to be determined later.

At times like these, I am often struck by the realization that while all this technology is billowing into the universe all around us, I can still look outside and see a doe leading her fawns through their first winter.

Maple trees growing in my yard were there long before Sputnik. Spear points found at the gravelly bottom of a nearby lake date back to animal hunters who came here thousands of years ago, during the age of ice.

It is so strange to me that if war weapons are launched into the skies some summer day, meant to destroy us, there will still be life going on as usual – birds singing, fish swimming and children laughing.

I might be out on a trout stream backwater someplace trying to concentrate through a cloud of mosquitoes, or dreaming at the wishing place, walking down a railroad track somewhere or just sitting still, soaking in the sunshine and the sights and sounds of nature.

The thought bends my mind.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, do the other trees hear it and feel it? Does the universe in some way sense it or make note of it somehow?

The clinking sound the treetops are making tonight is a sound I’m hearing more frequently over the wintertime nowadays. Rain in the winter, thunder when it’s snowing, meteorological tricks of the natural world.

The recent satellite launches have been picked up on the powerful cameras of astronomers in Chile who are working to map the night sky. They see the satellites as an interference with their own mission.

Reading that made me wonder whether we may one day have so many satellites in space they interfere with even our basic enjoyment of gazing at the stars.

I remember camping outside in my backyard as a kid when being able to spot a satellite gliding on past was a cool thing because it was an oddity. Today, satellites are commonly spotted while watching the night skies.

I worry sometimes that our tremendous technological advances – though stunning, miraculous and often beneficial – may be walking out ahead of us, beyond our ability to fully comprehend the challenges and concerns waiting to be realized in the future.

My dad would call that being “too smart for your own good.”

Not only technology, but changes of all kinds – this world’s only constant – appear to be happening at an accelerated rate. Time itself seems to have shifted into high gear, running and rolling on past.

Like a gigantic river all of this is moving ahead, pushing downstream, dragging us all with it.

I hope there are some pools up ahead where we can collect our thoughts, gauge our progress, check a compass, reset our bearing and make sure we’re all still here and accounted for.

The chilled raindrops hit my cheeks as I look out over the yard one more time. Another moment or two and I click the back-door latch and step into the house. I’m headed upstairs to my study for a book and a blanket.

Out there somewhere, in the dark, there is the sound of deer hooves breaking through the icy crust on the snow.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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